Aspen City Manager Sara Ott said that while many of Aspen’s visitors are complying with public health orders such as wearing masks in public, the recent rise in the town’s population has spurred several reactions from the city as it works to ensure that everyone is doing their part to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“For those of you who were around this weekend, you noticed town was absolutely hoppin’,” Ott said during Tuesday night’s city council meeting.
She said visitors and locals alike seem to be respectful and are generally obeying social distancing measurements, but a new public information campaign is meant to drive home the necessity of adhering to all aspects of the coronavirus containment strategy.
“We feel like the gentle nudges aren’t quite getting us there, so we wanted to be pretty obvious about what is the right thing to do,” Ott said.
The slogan “Keep Aspen safer, keep Aspen open” will fly on banners placed on lamp posts throughout downtown Aspen. The city also has made a printable poster depicting the “five commitments to containment” that consist of individual behavior expectations from the public health order.
Businesses and individuals can print the poster to hang in their windows. The city also is working on lawn signs with COVID-19 information and discussing ways to inform visitors of the public health regulations prior to arriving into town by putting signs near the roundabout or at the Brush Creek Park and Ride.
The campaign will be bolstered by two staff members approved by the council last week. The role is titled “consumer and employee health protection specialist.” As of Tuesday, five applicants had put their name in for the job; interviews are ongoing with the goal of making the hires in the first week of July. The position pays between $25 and $31 an hour and includes health insurance.
The protection specialist primarily will be roaming downtown, but also may make trips to city open space to bring awareness of public health expectations as more people recreate outdoors.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Ward Hauenstein echoed his comments from last week, asking that the specialists also work to spot and report infractions. However, the rest of council maintained the opinion that the new roles should be one of education, not enforcement.
“(They) are there to help support our businesses,” Ott said.
She noted that a new hotline managed by Pitkin County has been set up so that people who would like to report infractions can call with compliance concerns. The hotline will be a one-stop shop for people to call with any questions related to COVID-19, and is expected to roll out next week. The number will be printed on media materials made available through the city’s information campaign.
Ott also announced that with the growing influx of visitors, she has made the decision to raise parking fees in the downtown core and return to paid parking in the Rio Grande public parking garage.
Paid parking was eliminated during the initial stay-at-home orders issued in March because only essential workers were allowed to physically go to work. Because there was plenty of open parking while nonessential businesses were shut down, and due to the risk of viral spread on public transportation, any vehicle could park in town indefinitely for free.
During the current business reopening phase, paid parking resumed in the core at discount rates, and the public garage has remained free. Beginning July 6, normal summer parking rates will resume. However, residential parking on the outskirts of the core will remain free.
The rate hike goes into effect after Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus service picks up, both in volume and the number of riders allowed on the vehicles. Ott acknowledged that returning to public transportation might not be the best option for all commuters and visitors moving forward, but said the transportation authority is working diligently to make the experience as safe as possible.
“It's still not going to be perfect but it is happening moving forward,” she said. “RFTA has been putting in a lot of effort into doing that safely.”
Councilmember Rachel Richards also suggested large newspaper ads letting the public and tourists know about mask requirements. She praised the forthcoming outreach efforts.
“It’s the more in-your face, you-can’t-ignore-it, you-can’t-pretend-you-didn’t-see-it type of approach that we really need right now,” Richards said.
Mayor Torre said local residents did their part during the business shutdown to keep the community healthy. As businesses reopen and Aspen’s tourism-reliant economy gets chugging again, it is up to everyone to respect the continued adherence to public health laws.
“Locals need to keep modeling that good behavior,” Torre said. “The message to our visitors is you are welcome here … and we ask you to follow those guidelines that we are following to make our community safe. We can get through this but only together can we do it right.”